Ray Bradbury, whose death at the age of 91 was announced today, played an important role for an entire generation of kids like me. Important? You might even call it “lifesaving.” When things around us seemed unbearable, or incomprehensible, or soul-killing, his books opened a doorway – an escape hatch – through which we could leave “real life” and enter other worlds.
Ray Bradbury created many worlds. Some were in the future. Others were in parallel universes. Others were in the present or the past, but with a twist that changed their meaning completely. Some of those worlds were better than this one, some worse.
But they were all different from this one, which offered young people like me some measure of relief. And the people in them were always the same kind of people we have in this world, which offered us something even more valuable: understanding.
What does that have to do with politics? A lot.
Ray Bradbury was never afraid to open himself up, whatever the risks. The culture of the 1950s and 1960s was male-dominated. “This is a man’s world,” sang James Brown. “Men build the houses … the cars … the roads …” But, as if demanding payment for their dominance, society also rigidly controlled the emotional lives of boys and men. (Needless to say, society also chained women to a life of severely limited emotional, personal, and professional options.)
Yet even in that world Ray Bradbury was never afraid to show his emotions: a childlike sense of wonder, an unrestrained idealism, or that now-tarnished emotion called “hope.” He even displayed that most forbidden of male emotions: Fear. He toyed with his own fear, cherished it, nurtured it, made you feel it too.
And there was a lot to be afraid of in the world of the 1950s. That’s why Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451, his most overtly political book. He was responding to McCarthyism, Red-baiting, the blacklists. And to the totalitarian impulses that always seem to come back into style: The paranoia, with its search for hidden enemies that don’t exist. The hatred of the Other.
Bradbury was responding to that era’s strain of revulsion and contempt toward intelligence itself. You can see that same revulsion today: in the anti-science movement which denies climate change and even evolution, in Rick Santorum’s sneering comments about college graduates, in the firing of teachers, the soaring cost of a college education, and our contemptuous and careless discharge of our debt-ridden young people into a world of unemployment, underemployment and bank predation.
Ray Bradbury gave the world another gift, too. He could see the present as a stranger might see it – as if it were fiction, as if our own lives were being written by some 18th or 19th Century Bradbury. That kind of vision opened up a million imaginations. (I talked with Paul Krugman about the role sci-fi played in his career choices.)
Back then I scoured books on science fiction – even tried to write some at age eleven and twelve – and read something Bradbury had written which stunned me:
“… Only a few weeks ago, in Beverly Hills one night, a husband and wife passed me, walking their dog … The woman held in one hand a small cigarette-package-sized radio, its antenna quivering. From this sprang tiny copper wires which ended in a dainty cone plugged into her right ear. There she was, oblivious to man and dog, listening to far winds and whispers and soap-opera cries, sleep-walking, helped up and down curbs by a husband who might just as well not have been there.”
I suspect that the transistor radio, a pretty high-tech device in those days, was more likely playing a song. But what mattered most was the image he summoned: of the street, the daylight, the radio’s antenna glistening in the midday sun. And of the dehumanizing impact of this very modest technology on the life of one little family.
Ray Bradbury saw the science-fiction aspects of our world. The implications of that are profound. It reminds us that our society, our economy, our world, is a product of human action. That means we can imagine other worlds for ourselves, other stories, other futures.
It was a Ray Bradbury story, “A Sound of Thunder,” that first told the world about “the butterfly effect.” In the story a time traveler goes to the distant past, where he’s not supposed to touch anything, and makes one simple mistake: he steps on a butterfly. He returns to his own time, where a Presidential campaign is underway, and finds that everything has changed. An election considered a shoo-in for the good guy has instead been won by the “iron man” candidate, a dictator-in-the-making named Deutscher.
Later he learns that everything – even everyday language – is different and uglier.
When Bradbury wrote the story he was an outspoken political voice himself. As a young, widely popular science-fiction writer in the 1950’s (he appeared on Time Magazine’s cover as “the Poet of the Pulps”), he was the voice of that decade’s focus on the future. After Eisenhower defeated Stevenson, Bradbury took out a full-page ad in one of the Hollywood trade papers in 1952 attacking McCarthyism. He declared himself a Democrat, defended the right of dissent, and said he would not hide his beliefs in the aftermath of the election – no matter now much Red-baiting he faced.
Pretty brave of him, but we’d expect no less from the guy who wrote Fahrenheit 451.
In Bradbury’s story the butterfly died at election time. It wasn’t a special election, like yesterday’s in Wisconsin, but it might as well have been. Yesterday’s election was decided by the unrestrained power of money from corporations which distorted judges have turned, cyborg-like, into “persons.”
That’s our world. We need eyes like Ray Bradbury’s to help us see it.
Look around: Bankers committing public crimes without punishment, keeping their riches, and then whining to compliant reporters that people aren’t kind enough to them. Flying robots killing our own citizens and attacking wedding parties and caravans around the globe without the rule of law. Giant databases buying and selling our own homes while concealing the real holders of the mortgage, even from courts and governments.
In fact, the whole 21st Century has been straight out of a science-fiction movie: An election decided by a politicized Supreme Court and not the voters. A once-independent set of newspapers and broadcasters turned into a nearly-unified, government-manipulated cartel. Lies transmitted at the speed of light over a variety of old and new technologies. The apocalyptic devastation of 9/11 in the heart of New York City. Elections stolen through computerized fraud. Runaway wiretapping and electronic eavesdropping.
And now? The robotic Romney, with his perfect hair and an elevator inside the house for his cars. A Democratic Party whose leaders won’t speak the truth and run from their own party’s signature achievements.
Bradbury himself became somewhat less of a progressive firebrand in later years. Emotionally, he was a ‘conservative’ who never lost his nostalgia for the small-town Midwestern world of his youth. But he clung fiercely to the rule of reality and reason over the dictatorships of ignorance, fear and rage.
Which gets us to another emotion that Ray Bradbury wasn’t afraid to show: Anger. He was lyrical and sweet, and he could carry that lyricism a little too far sometimes. Okay, so once in a while he used a few too many adjectives, “ahas!” and “My Gods!” He occasionally populated his Midwestern summer skies with a few too many fireflies.
But for all his gentleness and lyricism, Ray Bradbury could work up a righteous anger. He said once that he wrote Fahrenheit 451 to express his “hatred for people who burn books.” His anger still burns, and it lights a way forward the way for people who still read that book today. But, as Bradbury also said, “”You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”
We saw that book-hating rage displayed against Occupy Wall Street, too. (We wrote about it, thanks to Bradbury, in a piece called “From Alexandria’s Library to Zuccotti Park: They’ve Been Destroying Books for 2000 Years.”)
Ray Bradbury was angry about totalitarianism, and prejudice, and ignorance. He was angry that people tried to make their world smaller and not bigger. He was angry that so much of human existence took the form of unnecessary suffering, wasted potential, and missed opportunities for wonder and joy.
But he was a hopeless romantic about people, an unstoppable optimist about the future, and an unswerving believer in the power of love. “We are an impossibility in an impossible universe,” he said, “the miracle of matter an form making itself into imagination and will … the Life Force experiment with forms.”
Bradbury loved imagining possible worlds. That’s a social activist’s, or any citizen’s, first and highest duty: To imagine a better world. And while he loved our human possibilities, he was no technocratic slave. He thought that e-book readers were “burnt metal.”
Ray Bradbury’s politics were the politics of emotion: hope, love, joy, wonder. They were the politics of truth – at any price. They were the politics of justice. They were the politics of becoming human. They were not the politics of techno-faddism or technofascism. And they were never, never the politics of the inevitable. Above all else, he believed in our ability to resist seemingly irresistible forces and choose our own destinies.
“I don’t try to describe the future,” said Ray Bradbury. “I try to prevent it.”